Lyotard in bits

Writing in the pre-internet dawn of 1986, Jean-François Lyotard said this in his essay “Rewriting Modernity” in The Inhuman[1], “It seems to me that what is really disturbing is much more the importance assumed by the concept of the bit, the unit of information.  When we’re dealing with bits, there’s no longer any question of free forms given here and now to sensibility and the imagination (1991, 34)”.  But to ask a Lyotardian question, was he right to worry?  The issue is important for Lyotard because of his Kantian stance on the aesthetic.  Regarding the work of the imagination in taste and of taking pleasure in the beautiful, he says,

Both give the same importance to the freedom with which the elements provided by sensibility are treated, and both insist on the fact that the forms in play in pure aesthetic pleasure or in free association and listening are as independent as can be from any empirical or cognitive interest. (Ibid., 32)

He envisages the hegemony of the bit, as the fundamental unit of information storage and exchange, impinging upon the degrees of freedom required by the imagination in a proper Kantian perception of the beautiful (and the sublime, for that matter).

On the contrary, [bits] are units of information conceived by computer engineering and definable at all linguistic levels – lexical, syntactic, rhetorical and the rest.  They are assembled into systems following a set of possibilities (a ‘menu’) under the control of a programmer. (Ibid., 34-35)

But one might as well make the same complaint of an alphabet, painter’s palette or the notes of the tonal scale as in some manner delimiting the creative process under a set of binding rules.  Prima facie, the near-exponential growth in our ability to manipulate the bit in the thirty years since Lyotard wrote has had exactly the opposite effect from that which he feared.  The technological tools for creativity are legion and there appears to be no diminution in our ability to appreciate, inter alia, the aesthetic nature of those technological fruits.  The issue of whether such appreciation is genuine or whether it is somehow an ersatz aesthetic judgement of some empty Baudrillardian “network of simulacra (ibid., 34)” is a matter for a different ontological debate.

[1] Lyotard, J-F.  1991.  The Inhuman: Reflections on Time.  Stanford CA.  Stanford University Press.

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